In a country town

Before the plank road laid through the Newark Meadows, the Passaic River was the only approach to the town from the east.

AS the last-born of his father’s children, William A. Whitehead would have wished to learn from his older siblings, and his parents too, about circumstances that formed him, even though he did not experience them directly. For he well understood that the constituents of a family, no less than of a people or state, not only bear the imprint of past events but draw from them comfort and courage.

The recent history of Whitehead’s family had its share of sorrows and joys, setbacks and accomplishments, tales both cautionary and inspirational. His father, also named William, was an immigrant from the West Indies making his way in the furniture business, when at age 17 he became engaged to Emma Riker, from one of the humbler branches of a storied New York family.1 They married a year later, and their first child, a son, was given the same name as his father. Within a few years another boy and two girls followed.

Just as surviving pieces from Whitehead’s workshop attest to his talent as a cabinet-maker, a ledger in the possession of his son the historian showed him to be adept at accounting, a skill he would turn to good use on leaving the furniture trade.2 Convulsive events of the 1790s may well have guided him to a different calling; at the very least they took a terrible toll on his family.

Throughout the last decade of the eighteenth century epidemic diseases called regularly in port cities from Virginia to Massachusetts. None was more devastating than the yellow fever that killed some 5,000 residents of Philadelphia, about ten percent of its population, between August and November 1793. New York City officials banned all traffic with Philadelphia until the sickness passed, but had to contend with several outbreaks of their own, especially the so-called Great Epidemic of 1798 which claimed more than 2,000 lives. In that year, all who had the wherewithal to leave did so. “The yellow fever so prevails in New York that the inhabitants are flying in every direction,” wrote William Dunlap in the safety of Perth Amboy.3 As William Whitehead’s furniture shop stood at the epicenter of the disease, his family was probably among those fleeing the scourge.

Experience taught that, if and when the fever returned, it would manifest first where it always had, in the vicinity of Pearl, Water and Front Streets, close to the East River slips and docks. The reasons for this perennial tendency were much debated. Blame in varying measure fell on overcrowded dwellings, rotting foodstuffs, nonexistent sewerage, contact with sailors from foreign ports, diet, intemperance and other moral failings. Much of the area was low-lying and poorly drained. Mosquitoes were a common complaint in the hot, stagnant summers, but not yet thought of as vectors of the disease.

A joint committee formed in the fall of 1798 to look for means of preventing a return of the fever the following summer. Among its recommendations was a plan to supply the city with “pure and wholesome water.” Joseph Browne, a British-born physician, had submitted just such a measure to the Common Council in July: he proposed that a private corporation be established to draw fresh water from the Bronx River and pipe it eight miles to the south end of Manhattan island. The corporation would be capitalized at $200,000 and receive a charter from the State of New York. Although his name was not attached to the initial plan, Browne’s brother-in-law Aaron Burr, then a member of the state Assembly, soon transformed the drive to charter the Manhattan Company into a work of political genius.4

In spite of sanitary measures taken by the city’s Health Commission, yellow fever returned in the summer of 1799. The neighborhoods of the docks were ordered evacuated and poor residents moved to tents on higher ground. Not caring to take chances with the lives of his family, William Whitehead brought his wife and four children ten miles west, to a New Jersey town one-tenth the size of New York City. Although boat travel between the two remained viable, it’s likely the Whiteheads took the ferry to Paulus Hook and a stage over the corduroy road that crossed the Meadows; with the intervening rivers recently bridged, it was by far the faster route to Newark.

In 1799 Newark was a place of fewer than 6,000 souls. Relative to its future development it had tasted little of trade or industry. Looking up the few dirt roads it called streets one had a view of nearby farms, pastures and orchards. It was a logical place to escape the “noxious vapours” of New York. Whether the Whiteheads sought refuge with friends or relations, or in one of the few inns that an isolated country town could support, is unknown.

It is known that death followed them to Newark, or found them there. Over a period of eight days in September, three family members–the eldest child William, aged 7, his mother Emma, aged 27, and Emma’s older sister Sarah Walgrove–all succumbed in Newark to “the prevailing fever.” They were interred in the old burial ground of the town’s first church.5

It’s not recorded whether William brought his surviving three children back to the city once the danger had passed. Formerly a rootless immigrant, he was now a man of such standing with his fellow New Yorkers that the editor of the Argus consented to print a long, affecting tribute to his late wife.6 But William could not abide long without a mother to his children, of whom the oldest now was just two, the youngest but a few months. In Newark he had befriended Abigail Coe, a granddaughter of one of the town’s Revolutionary-era patriots. Following a brief courtship “they were quietly married, and went to housekeeping” in a small house west of Broadway, a more salubrious part of New York City by most accounts.7

Returning to New York, William Whitehead went back to a number of personal and professional associations, though not to his earlier career as a cabinet-maker. Aaron Burr had secured for the Manhattan Company a charter, a capitalization far greater than first proposed, and an effectively perpetual license to conduct “monied transactions,” in other words, to operate as a private bank to vie with the two banks already doing business in New York. Burr’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton had, to his chagrin, lent crucial support to the Manhattan Bank, conceding it was “a perfect monster in its principles; but a very convenient instrument of profit & influence.”8 Burr’s bank ultimately did little to supply “pure and wholesome water” to New York City, but copious wealth flows even today through the channels first laid out in the 1790s.

The successor institution, now known as J.P. Morgan Chase, can number William Whitehead among its original stockholders–he bought five shares–and one of its first clerks.9 Within a few years, as cashier of the first bank chartered in New Jersey, he could bring Abigail and their children home to Newark. There, in 1810, Abby gave birth to her second child and William’s last: there, on the premises of the Newark bank, William Adee Whitehead first opened his eyes to his own life of “profit & influence.”

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] According to James Riker, Jr., The annals of Newton, in Queens County, New-York (New York 1852) 301-303, Emma Riker was descended from Abraham de Rycke, who settled in New Amsterdam by 1642, her father was Abraham Riker, a baker, and she was a second cousin to Richard Riker, the New York City recorder notorious for his role in the kidnapping and enslavement of free blacks. Timothy Alden, A collection of American epitaphs and inscriptions with occasional notes. Pentade I (New York 18142) 1:16 identifies Emma Riker’s father as John Riker, while Hopper Striker Mott, “American epitaphs,” The New York genealogical and biographical record 45:2 (April 1914) (182-187) 186, calls him Richard Riker.

[2] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 2-3 of the transcription contain the reference.

[3] Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839), 3 vols. (Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 62-64. New York 1930) 1:239 (29 August 1798).

[4] Proceedings of the Corporation of New-York, on supplying the city with pure and wholesome water; with a memoir of Joseph Browne, M. D. on the same subject (New York 1799); Beatrice G. Reubens, “Burr, Hamilton and the Manhattan Company, I.” Political science quarterly 72:4 (December 1957) 578-607, esp. 583-586.

[5] Argus (New York, N.Y.) 23 September 1799 3:4-5 and 25 September 1799 3:3; Alden, A collection of American epitaphs 1:16, nos 9-10; “Childhood and youth” 3.

[6] “How quickly are the scenes of domestic happiness and tranquility succeeded by the sable ones of grief and woe? Only a few days ago, and hope, ever buoyant, looked forward to a long enjoyment of the former; but now her family, bereft of its much loved ornament, feels her loss with the most exquisite sensations, and their grief is rendered more poignant by a recollection of the virtues which endeared this amiable woman to all who knew her.” Argus 23 September 1799 3:5.

[7] “Childhood and youth” 3. The New York city directories place William at 28 Marketfield Street in 1800, and at 8 Dey Street in the next three years.

[8] A.H., New York, 16 January 1801, to James A. Bayard, in Harold C. Syrett, ed. The papers of Alexander Hamilton 25 (New York 1977) 321 (insertion).

[9] A collection of more than four hundred autographs of leading citizens of New York at the close of the fifteenth century reproduced in facsimile from the signatures of the original subscribers to the capital stock of the Manhattan Company as signed by them in the original subscription book April 20 and 22, 1799 commemorating the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of the Bank of the Manhattan Company 1799-1919 (New York 1919). Whitehead entered the Manhattan Company in 1800, according to “Childhood and youth” 3. City directories list him as a cabinet-maker from 1792 through 1799, and as an accountant from 1800 through 1803.

Image: Newark, (East of Mulberry St. 1820-5), detail, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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